Graphic Design | The Real Super Hero A Theory of Design by Benjamin Howes, Graphic Designer

Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Green Lantern, The Fantastic Four, Spiderman, the X-Men, and even Aquaman all have one superpower in common. It’s not the ability to bound over tall buildings, or the ability to fly or sling webs. It doesn’t come from a distant planet. It isn’t an array of gadgets and gizmos bankrolled by a successful business. It isn’t partial to the Avengers or the Justice League, and, yet, it’s arguably what gives all of the above Superheroes their greatest power. Without this one key power, caped crusaders and masked avengers alike may be little more than anonymous shadows drifting through the night, echoes on the edges of their worlds. So what is this unsung superpower, and moreover why is it an actual superpower in real life? A cursory glance at the title of this post reveals the answer: it is graphic design. A thorough examination of the rest of this post will explain why.

Each superhero listed above utilizes a symbol to establish their authority. Superman has a bold, red ‘S’ typeset in a yellow triangle. Batman has a beacon that illumines the underside of Gotham City’s omnipresent cloud cover, a stylized outline of a bat against a swatch of yellow. Spiderman is recognizable throughout the glass and concrete jungle scape of New York City, a red and blue blur amidst the browns, grays, and blacks of Big Apple. The X-Men have a wide range of potentially frightening mutants within their ranks, but Wolverine’s claws seem far less scary when he is wearing his jumpsuit with the silver X ensconced in a circle. These symbols lend authority to the heroes, taming them in a sense. The bat symbol, the S, and the spider tell us that everything is all right in the world. They let us know that these superhuman-superheroes can be trusted and not feared. Without an established brand identity and presence, they would seem frightening and difficult to comprehend. With the right brand they become our friends, our champions, and sometimes even gods over their comic book worlds.

Every surviving religious system has a symbol or symbols associated with it, whether it’s as ancient as Hinduism with its sanskrit ‘Ohm’ symbol, Judaism with its menorah and Star of David, Christianity with its cross, Islam with its crescent, or as new as Apple with its illumined bitten apple. These symbols are visual placeholders for the tenets, dogma, and beliefs espoused by each system. So powerful are they that men will kill other men over them and have from the dawn of time. So powerful are they that men will help their fellow men in the name of them and have from the dawn of time. The symbol is, in many ways, more powerful tangibly than any god or goddess, for while the power of a deity is felt within one’s interior life, the power of a symbol can be felt through time and space.

Symbols also visualize secular ideas and movements. Would the reach of Rome be less remembered without the golden eagle and SPQR emblazoned in gold on the standards of their advancing armies? Would the horrors of Nazism be more easily forgotten without the swastika? The swastika was originally a symbol of good luck across several cultures for centuries. Hitler’s use of the symbol has ruined its meaning as long as we keep history. Symbols, after all, are entirely neutral. It’s the idea behind them that can turn them into a wonderful servant or a horrible master. Symbols are not preachers of an objective truth; they morph and change based on those who use them.

So why is the symbol the one true superhero (or supervillain)? Chiefly because it makes our world a better or worse place. The chaos following the landfall of a hurricane can be structured by the arrival of the Red Cross who, without their identifying symbol, wouldn’t bring the peace and assurance that their brand implies. A crest on a fire truck or police car enforces order in a situation that can be anything but. Symbols help us make sense of our world. They are sponges filled with our thoughts, hopes, ideas, and fears. Each time we see them, that sponge is squeezed and we experience those emotions all over again. Symbols are a tether for words, ideas, feelings, passions, and convictions. They are good and they are evil given a face, a name, an association. They can save the world. They can tear the world apart. The choice is up to us.

As a graphic designer, I recognize the power the symbol can have and my responsibility to use it for good. The ideas, products, causes, and movements of the future are literally in our hands now. For those of us who are called to design it, let us remember that it isn’t our responsibility to make the world a better place, but it’s to make it look like a better place. Let us remember that we have one of the strongest powers known to humanity in our minds and in our hands.

If you want to make your world a better place, let me or any of the creative superheroes here at Serif help your brand shine through like a beacon of inspired thinking in a sky overcast with over-advertising.

3 Comments

  1. I was actually thinking about this the a lot the other day when I saw one of this “COEXIST” bumper stickers. So crazy. Great read!

  2. This is a great read that relates how we as designers see the world. There is knowledge here that even those who have not studied design can comprehend. I am definitely going to pass this one along!!

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